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Foner, Allen panel discusses Princeton's slavery legacy

Princeton is a perpetual living museum whose candid history can illuminate not just the past, but the times in which we live, said Eric Foner and Danielle Allen ’93 in a panel discussion on “The Princeton and Slavery Project: How it Changes Our Understanding of American History and Poses a Challenge to Historical Commemoration.”

Allen, director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard, said that the University and its peer institutions tend to view their tourists as prospective students and present their history from an admissions and recruiting point of view. She argued, however, that as living museums for the country, these institutions are charged, beyond their local responsibility to students, with applying correct historical standards to their work.


Foner, a history professor at Columbia, added that Princeton’s commemoration of such a history in the Princeton and Slavery Project was truly in the nation’s service, encouraging the real historical practice of critical inquiry in a time when “fake history is emanating from the highest offices in the land.”

Yet, despite living through an explosion of scholarship on black histories, Allen cautioned the audience against letting these histories slip into the “seas of forgetfulness.” She described the importance of weaving together the strands of oral history with traditional sources, particularly for black and Native American histories that might lack written records. Although schools will often dismiss such stories as “impossible” to recount, citing a lack of reliable sources, Allen encouraged scholars to seek out and verify oral history as an untapped wealth of information. 

Indeed, student researchers at Columbia were able to uncover newspaper advertisements in Columbia (formerly King’s College) and New York for the purchase, selling, and capture of escaped slaves in spite of scanty records, said Foner, who is directing the Columbia University and Slavery Project. He emphasized the many similarities between Princeton and Columbia. For example, many of the early presidents and trustees of the two universities owned slaves, and donors often derived much of their wealth from the slave trade. 

However, Foner said that Princeton’s reputation as the Southern Ivy was certainly justified. Columbia had only a dozen students from the Southern states for the first century since its founding and had virtually no students fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War. 

Princeton, on the other hand, erected a memorial in 1921–22 to its students that fought in the Civil War, but is unique in the country in not listing the sides for which each soldier fought, said President Eisgruber, who moderated the discussion. Foner suggested that such a memorial reflected the reconciliatory mood of the 1920s which insisted that the real meaning of the Civil War lay in honorable sacrifices on both sides, thereby entirely excluding African-Americans and the question of emancipation. He recommended installing a plaque by the memorial to acknowledge the reality of U.S. society of the time, to which Allen added that the University must attempt to draw a distinction between addressing its current ethical questions and understanding its past.

Telling these histories in full is also essential to complete representation in democracy, said Allen whose book “Our Declaration” was chosen as the 2016 Princeton Pre-read. She claimed that as the 13 colonies were coming together to form a democratic republic, the question of representation was discussed as a mathematical concept. Yet to the civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois linked cultural and political representation, claiming that the right to vote was not simply a need to protect oneself but the “expression of a desire to be a co-creator in the kingdom of culture,” said Allen.


Foner expressed dismay that interest in such a Du Boisian conception of citizenship, for which one requires a broad education of the sort provide at U.S. liberal arts institutions, was quickly dying out on both sides of the political spectrum. Eisgruber countered, adding that the feedback he had received on the Princeton and Slavery Project highlighted the non-partisan way in which Princeton historians handled a delicate and difficult topic. 

Eisgruber said that Princeton was thus rendered a place where faculty, students, and the community could practice the art of good citizenship while having difficult conversations, a setting that he hoped would be emulated across the country as a means of understanding justice through history. Allen recognized that changing the records in such a manner would likely puncture many narratives that people held dear, but that a gentle and empathetic change would enable this commemoration of justice.

The discussion was part of a larger symposium on the Princeton and Slavery Project, held in McCosh Hall 10 on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. 

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